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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best, Philosophical Meanderings

Joy in Standardized Tests?

Much of the conversation in response to this weeks’ blog posts has centered around joy in learning and joy in school. Here’s my story of this past week.

I am my school’s testing coordinator.  This is my first year doing it and we are doing all of our state tests online.  I am coordinating 10 tests–4 for 3rd and 5th grade and 2 for fourth grade. I decided we were going to take  them in ways that MADE SENSE and that took as little time as possible. I decided I wasn’t going to scare teachers to death about talking to kids, answering questions and supporting them. (Our central office coordinator has good sense–she told us early that what the state requires is that every child has the opportunity to “test well” in an environment that supports that and that folks don’t cheat.  I repeated that to my teachers and told them I trusted them to follow the rules they already know from past years–they are all experienced at this state testing rigamarole!)  I was NOT going to model this testing as a “do or die” situation.  I was going to be calm and assure kids they were going to be fine.

I set up a schedule and approved it with teachers, so they had control and some time to work on the subjects over which they felt less secure.  We started with subjects with which the kids would feel really successful. If kids hadn’t been taking tests in small groups all year, we didn’t set up those artificial situations this time.  Most kids are taking the tests in the lab with their class, as they have been working all year.

I started several weeks ago telling kids about brain gym exercises they could do, sharing success stories from my own experiences. I gave them strategies for relaxing, for narrowing down choices on a multiple choice test, and answered their questions as to what would happen if they didn’t pass. I kept reassuring them this test was simply for the state to let them show what they knew, so it wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would “pass their grade.”  I work with kids in all grades 3-5, so I know what I was telling the kids I work with was spreading among most of the kids in those tested grades.

I shared with kids a story of last year.  I was proctoring in a 3rd grade online testing situation, and the computers went down. The teacher and I made eye contact–not knowing how long we’d have to stall. The testing coordinator came in and calmly told us they would get the computers back up as soon as possible and we just needed to be patient. So, knowing we couldn’t let the kids talk to each other, or leave the room as a group, I started teaching them brain exercises–a couple of tricks I had learned form a great PE teacher, Pam Walker. We spent a few minute doing these, with me talking about how it calms them down, gets their brain working to the max, and within a few minutes, the computers were ready for them to log back in and continue.  Those kids did GREAT on that test, and kids heard me when I told them these exercises really work!

(This year, when that teacher came to the lab with her kids, she handed me a copy of some brain gym exercises she had gotten from the web.  Knowing she wouldn’t have me in there this year, she came prepared to do her own version of pumping up those kids with brain gym work!)

So, I’ve had the joy each day of testing to see each child go into the labs, to smile at them to tell them how great I know they are going to do, and I have been the one, in the middle of the test, when they ask to take a break or get a drink of water, or go to the bathroom, to be able to smile at them and say how proud I am of them for being such a good learner, or how well I just know they are going to do, or how smart I know they are.  I get to touch their shoulder and give them a friendly “You can do it” smile. I get to reassure them someone believes in them and  I see their taller stance as they re-enter the testing room. I get to be another person (besides their teacher) who says in many ways, “I believe in you.”

It’s been an awesome week.  I have felt so great being able to pump kids up and see their smiles as they re-enter a testing room.  Teachers AND kids are talking about how they are not feeling the stress this year as in years past.  Our scores are coming back and they are good–we have LOTS of advanced passes, and high pass rates.

Are our scores perfect?  No.  Do we still have work to do?  Yes. But, kids and teachers are saying it doesn’t feel like they are taking an SOL test. They have had practice doing this, they know their stuff, and they are doing it in familiar surroundings with knowledge and comfort.

Kids are smiling and feeling okay about their testing. Teachers are feeling proud of their work this year, as their kids ARE showing what they know. Our tech folks have done a GREAT job setting this up for success and tech glitches have been few and far between.  One of them sits with me each day to support me, just in case, and those folks, too, smile at the kids and ooze calmness.

Do I think multiple choice tests are the best way for kids to show what they know?  Of course not.  Do I think they need to take over our lives?  Of course not.  Do I think they can be one piece of what we do?  Sure. Do I think kids can handle them?  Of course–it all depends on the adults around them.

While this may sound like ti’s all about what I do with the kids, it’s really all of my teachers–they model belief in their kids.  They teach well.  They work hard all year and reward hard work in their classrooms.  They are simply reaping the rewards of their dedication and care. . .and I get  to help!

I have had fun this past week helping teachers be calm and helping kids be calm. I have had several kids walk out of the testing room to go to the bathroom and give ME a thumbs up sign!

And I’m not kidding, I have seen MOST kids smile beginning the test AND ending it.

Joy is often in how you approach a task.

About Paula White

grandma, teacher, Apple Distinguished Educator (ADE), DEN STAR, Google Certified Teacher, camper, Gifted Resource Tchr, NETS*T certified, lover of learning


75 thoughts on “Joy in Standardized Tests?

  1. Paula, This is a amazing post! I would love to send this to the New York Time! I wish I could student teach with you next year.

    Thank you!


    Posted by dloitz | May 23, 2010, 1:31 am
  2. What state are you in? Is this a public/ private/charter school? How many students were tested? Trying to get my head around the logistics.

    Posted by Adriese | May 23, 2010, 12:30 pm
    • Public school in VA. a little over 300 kids, with half of them (grades 3-5 being tested .) Whole grade (46, 52 or 57 kids) tested at a time. We’re very lucky in that the design of our school let us use the computer lab (26 desktop computers) and the classroom next door ( set up as a laptop lab with 24 more computers), and the literacy interventionist room used for small groups (mostly her literacy groups) all on ONE hall. That hall also has bathroom and water, so we could NOT disturb the rest of the school and they didn’t disturb us. SPED kids whose IEP demanded a different kind of session were tested in two separate places, but also NOT part of the mainstream building, so it least impacted the rest of the school.

      It has gone smoothly for 5 of the 10 tests. 2 more scheduled for this week and 3 for next. 🙂

      Posted by Paula White | May 23, 2010, 1:32 pm
  3. Hi Paula, as you know, I am also the testing coordinator at my school. I borrowed your saying of “We know it, now we’ll show it”, writing it on the large dry erase boards in all of our testing rooms. The teachers have worked with students to create “know it and show it” chants and our guidance counselor created a large hallway bulletin board that proudly displays the saying. Thank you for this golden nugget! Our students are all trying very hard, taking the tests seriously, and finishing with smiles. Several have passed me in the hall and have said, “Mrs. Kelly, I showed what I know!” You’re right, my friend…it’s all in the attitude and approach!

    Posted by Corrie | May 23, 2010, 2:04 pm
    • Corrie, SUCH a cool idea to write it on the dry erase boards in the rooms. . . guess what I’ll be doing tomorrow AM? Thanks for the idea. Thanks for sharing your joyful story, too!

      Another thing that absolutely drives me NUTS in testing are the folks who tell the kids, “Good Luck!” Testing (and learning) IS NOT ABOUT LUCK! It’s about all the hard work, effort, thinking, sharing, and learning that has happened PRIOR to the test–not about whether you’ll be “lucky” guessing the right answer. It IS about showing what you know, and using strategies to eliminate wrong answer choices, thinking and strategic responses when you’re not quite sure.

      Our third grade teachers teach the LACE strategies for test taking–
      Look back at the story, paragraph or picture.
      All questions and answers are read carefully.
      Circle the whole problem and key words.
      E liminate wrong answers.

      On one of the scrap papers I collected this week, (from a kid named Lacey NOT in third grade, but remembering them from her third grade year), the kid had written down these strategies and added a Y on LACE to make her name. Beside the Y she had written, “You can do it!”

      How cool is that!

      Posted by Paula White | May 23, 2010, 2:30 pm
  4. The Brain Gym idea is one I need to follow through on in my classroom. Perhaps Tuesday I’ll take a little better care of my students.

    Posted by Alan Stange | May 23, 2010, 2:25 pm
  5. Paula, Just adding in that this is a great, joyful, detailed, practice-oriented post about how you do things in your school. I think that means a lot and show folks out there what “advanced practice” can look like. Thank you, you inspirational trouble maker.

    My only issue is that there really are kids who have to do a lot of prepping for tests (Best predictor of test scores is family income, as you know). In one of my schools if we don’t do a lot of prepping, our kids fail. (Believe me, we know.) And they are taking a state mandated test (in 10th grade) that determines whether or not they can receive a high school diploma. How would you stand up in that situation?

    What we say is, we want to give you some of the same kind of preparation that rich suburban kids get. But we still spend way too much time coaching and prepping for the test itself.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 23, 2010, 2:46 pm
  6. Let us all remember that the Nazis marched their victims to the gas chamber with accompaniment of Opera.

    A bad thing done nicely is still a bad thing. While I understand my example is perhaps a tad harsh, I hope my point is not lost.

    While I can agree that many teachers are forced to subject their students to these tests, and that it is the teacher’s responsibility to waste as little class time in preparation, I also believe we have a duty NOT to convince the students that these tests can be a good thing.

    If teachers know these tests are bad, then we need to make parents and students allies in the fight against the tests. If we work to hide the travesty that is standardized testing, then we risk raising students that will become parents and teachers that will only work to perpetuate this bankrupt system of accountability and testing.

    Rather than givng me warm and fuzzies, I’m afraid your story sends cold shivers down my spine.

    If we simply reconcile to the status quo and spend all our time getting out children to accomodate themselves to it and play the game, then nothing will change and they will have to do the same with their children. As someone once said, realism corrupts; absolute realism corrupts absolutely. (Alfie Kohn) (

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 23, 2010, 3:26 pm
    • Joe-
      There is a significant difference in committing murder and teaching students. Paula is subverting the system in her own way and is likely to be heard and listened to. Standardized testing is not necessarily our enemy, and Paula is determined to demonstrate that all kids can succeed on the low-level, multiple choice, machine scored tests even if the teacher runs a project-based classroom like she does. The tests are only as bad as the teachers who teach leading up to them allow them to be.

      Teachers aren’t forced to administer these assessments, they chose to. A teacher who doesn’t want to administer or even teach to these assessments can simply work in a school exempt from the state testing system – many private schools and some charter schools might fit that bill.

      Posted by Becky Fisher | May 23, 2010, 8:38 pm
    • Joe, I find a very real difference of intent here that, for me, takes away from your metaphor.

      I think about Candide and the notion of the best of all possible worlds, but even that is too violent and cynical a comparison to really apply.

      I see tremendous value in Paula’s work here to unify a school community. Her post is a fantastic how-to in that regard. I don’t see the value in testing as we do. Perhaps we could all come together to work on language for requesting waivers from testing in favor of performance and portfolio assessments and all submit it next Fall?

      I would also suggest that until we find our ways to further disruption, individually and collectively, we need to minimize tests’ impact on kids and their anxieties. One way to do that is to have honest conversations about them – to help de-mystify and de-power the tests in kids’ minds. Another way is to make sure that kids feel cared for, competent, and human during testing.

      I like the idea of involving the community. My mentor and I have been talking about this regarding several issues. Why aren’t teachers reading out to sympathetic parent and community members t champion kids in matters such as this? Fear? Of what? Losing a job? Being wrong? Finding no one willing to speak or in agreement? What has to happen to help us overcome that fear?

      Freedom without accountability – without useful constraints – doesn’t help learning. The problem remains: how do we make holding ourselves accountable for students’ learning an explicit part of our job in a way that helps us grown and helps our students experience the joy ad fulfillment of authentic learning? Tests and the pieces of our educational system that abet them, as they exist now, are dysfunctional and can’t do this.

      Where do we intervene professionally with peers and for students? How do we help students intervene on their own behalves? How do we involve others and provide factual counter examples to popular media’s notions of testing and teaching?

      How do we get out of the testing tautology box? It is easy to understand: schools that spend more time preparing students for standardized testing show gains in student achievement as measured by those tests. Well, duh. How do we complicate matters? Do we start with ourselves, our colleagues, our administrators, our parents, our kids? All at once?

      What’s the next step and what’s the right cost to pay?

      What do we suggest?


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 5:54 am
    • Joe, the tests are a fact of my life, as I choose to teach in a public school in VA,where the tests are required. I can rant and rave about them all day long and they will not go away this week or next–I still am the school testing coordinator for my school for the last three tests we have this year, and for the makeup tests kids have missed.

      You say, “If we simply reconcile to the status quo and spend all our time getting our children to accomodate themselves to it and play the game, then nothing will change and they will have to do the same with their children.”

      If you are speaking to my practice, you make some broad assumptions, my friend. You assume I am getting children to accommodate themselves to it. I am not.

      I DO teach them to play the game–but I tell them it is a game. I tell them it really doesn’t show anything except how well they take tests–and I teach them strategies for how to beat the tests when they don’t know an answer. I don’t spend a lot of time on this. . ask my kids–they’ll tell you we do real work in our classroom, not practice for tests.

      I teach them probability through test taking, showing them just how stupid some of the distractor answers are. I teach them to think critically about how easy it is to beat the tests, and then to do that same level of critical thinking about whether they are worthwhile or not.

      Instead of teaching them to accommodate themselves to it, I teach them to understand the stupidity of it, so they will be able to rail against it one day when they are in positions to do so. If kids learn, as 10 and 11 year olds, that the tests can be beat, do you think they’ll see them as worthwhile as adults?

      As parents in VA, for example, they can AT ANY TIME refuse to let their children take the SOL tests. Do schools and school districts make that widely known? NO–because if they did, and parents took them up on it, the missing child’s score would affect the school’s scoring to meet AYP.

      Just imagine what would happen if parents did that wholesale.

      I teach my kids they can do it as parents. They go home and talk to their parents about it. I’m waiting for someone to come ask me if they can opt their child out.

      I am trying to make a bad situation somewhat better. . . but I am not sugar-coating the reality of the tests being a time wasting way of showing what you really know. My kids know how I test–and it isn’t with multiple choice tests. I am doing what Chad described in a post below yours- “have honest conversations about them – to help de-mystify and de-power the tests in kids’ minds. Another way is to make sure that kids feel cared for, competent, and human during testing.”

      I agree with Becky in that “The tests are only as bad as the teachers who teach leading up to them allow them to be.”

      A bad thing done nicely? I prefer to think of it as a forced thing done more humanely.

      Sorry for the delay in responding–today is the first day my torn rotator cuff has allowed me to spend ANY length of time on the computer–and that’s only because I am not in school and can take the meds I need to stay ahead of the pain.

      Posted by Paula White | May 29, 2010, 10:04 pm
  7. Also, if we would never get upset by low scores on the test because we know the tests are bullshit, then we should never be happy if we score high. The tests are still bullshit – one way or the other.

    Posted by Joe Bower | May 23, 2010, 3:29 pm
    • I agree with the paradox – or hypocrisy- it is hard to avoid satisfaction when the results are good. We feel validated despite our opposition to testing in this way.

      Posted by Alan Stange | May 23, 2010, 11:33 pm
      • What further complicates this notion of approval for me is that in states like Virginia with strict charter laws and no mention in state code of alternative assessments outside of special education or career and technical education, public schools with alternative visions of education have to do well on standardized tests to remain politically viable to attract financing. Maybe Catch-22 is the metaphor I’ve been searching for in response to Joe’s.


        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 5:57 am
      • Chad’s comment below caught my eye. What would it take make a school a career and technical education program?

        Posted by Rick Ashby | May 25, 2010, 6:53 pm
        • Rick, you are a genius. I see the Community Public Charter School of Digital Production Arts in our future. Dude, seriously: brilliant.


          Posted by Chad Sansing | May 25, 2010, 10:50 pm
  8. Joe brings up an interesting point: that “a bad thing done nicely is still a bad thing.” I, too, have my own unique ways of making test preparation and test-taking less tedious and pressure-packed. This year, I baked for my kids and they ate cookies each morning before the exams. I baked peppermints into one batch and told them about the magical effects that flavor has on the brain. Another one was strictly cinnamon – another flavor that I told them works wonders. They said the cookies calmed them down, which was the desired outcome.

    Now, although my kids actually told me they liked test prep this year, do you think I don’t have regrets? Of course I do. These poor kids will have memories of tests forever, and the what should have been the essence of their educational childhood will be lost. Unfortunately, though, I am forced to do certain things as an educator in this day and age. But I do them my way.

    So, a bad thing done nicely? Perhaps. But I’m doing what I have to do.

    Posted by Mr. Foteah | May 23, 2010, 4:30 pm
  9. Joe–

    A “tad harsh”? Having stood inside a gas chamber, and having worked with multiple Holocaust survivors and Holocaust educators, I can safely say they WOULD find your analogy to be disrespectful and irresponsible, not “a tad harsh.” Can’t you PLEASE make your point without trivializing genocide? The Holocaust is not a rhetorical device to be appropriated for our convenience.

    I’m having a hard time focusing on anything else you say after that, which is a shame, since you obviously have authentic and constructive things to say, and this is an important topic.

    Posted by Lisa Scott | May 23, 2010, 7:02 pm
    • Please believe me when I say that I chose my words carefully.

      I’m not trivializing anything.

      There are some very important lessons to be learned from all history – including the Holocaust. If we waited to apply those lessons learned to equally horrific situations, we would rarely, if ever, be able to enact what we learned.

      Little Red Riding Hood is perhaps a little over the top or a tad harsh for a child’s bedtime story, but I would hope we could all focus on the task at hand.

      Posted by Joe Bower | May 23, 2010, 9:05 pm
  10. Paula, what I like about this post is that it shows how we can take ownership of school culture and our relationships with students to create places of joy and safety for students. Your leadership and your colleagues’ buy-in and pride in your students are wonderful. Your care for your students – for all students, really – shines. Paula, you rock.

    I proctored tests this week. I helped create a supportive testing environment. There were smiles. There were no real upsets or refusals. Nevertheless, I remain uneasy with my participation in standardized testing.

    Paula, I’m glad you assured students that “[testing] wasn’t going to decide their classes next year, or whether they would ‘pass their grade.’” I think testing in secondary schools plays a larger role in scheduling, at the very least, who comes out of electives for SOL remediation either in year-long double-blocked language arts courses or in a pull-out program 6 weeks before testing.

    Between my unease and that observation about the schools in which I worked (NB: I co-designed and managed a pull-out SOL remediation program at one of them and have yet to strike it from my résumé), I’ll just reiterate what I wrote a few posts back about where I am now:

    I stand against standardized testing.

    However, I continue to compromise with it. It’s a priority for me to work with my school in getting a waiver from our state DOE to let us use body of evidence binders in place of SOL tests as soon as possible. But that and a few blog posts are all that can be said of my stand against testing right now.

    I have a kajillion questions, but really they all come down to something like this:

    Why are we asking incredible teachers like Paula – and all those teachers who aspire to be like her – to shift their attention from facilitating students’ authentic learning to celebrating the State’s dubious measures of rote learning at the end of every school year? Paula, would you share what you put on hold – and what your students put on hold – to test?

    If we live in a world that must have standardized tests, then, hell yes, I want Paula leading the charge.

    But I didn’t see standardized tests on anyone’s list last week.


    Posted by Chad Sansing | May 23, 2010, 7:59 pm
    • Why are we asking incredible teachers like Paula – and all those teachers who aspire to be like her – to shift their attention from facilitating students’ authentic learning to celebrating the State’s dubious measures of rote learning at the end of every school year?

      The world is a place where people need validation for everything. The problem is that they forget what it was like to be in school, to be a learner, and to experience an environment that advocates growth rather than summation. We advocate for ideas like “summative” assessment even though we want kids to be “life-long learners”. Think about how ludicrous the concept is….summative assessment. Does it not go against the ideals of being a lifelong learner?

      Now I agree wholeheartedly that it is dead wrong for standardized tests to be forced down upon educators, but I also think we need to look at ourselves and realize we’ve had a hand in it too. The people who are mandating tests now also went through school, also had multiple-choice tests, and also were told, “This unit is over. Let’s go to the next one.” What’s better is that we still administer summative assessments all the time. It increases the societal belief that everyone gets to the same point at the same time, which they don’t.

      So, how do we convince a generation of policy wonks that what was done to them when they were in school was wrong as well?

      Posted by Aaron Eyler | May 23, 2010, 8:40 pm
      • “The world is a place where people need validation for everything” Isn’t this the conversation being held about Adam’s post on autonomy?

        I agree, too, that we HAVE had a hand in it–not only through the continued practice as we knew it when we were in school idea you speak to, but also through perpetuating the perceptions Kirsten talks about that “there was TOO MUCH AUTONOMY out there in the teaching force, and that there were no professional norms in the sector that actually enforced good or even adequate practice among teachers” (from the conversation in the autonomy post.)

        One thing we have to do as teachers is SHOW how we can help kids show what they know in ways that matter, finding ways that we can communicate to those who need proof of that accountability of the learning going on in our classrooms. That would be a huge start to the change we all speak for.

        Posted by Paula White | May 23, 2010, 11:06 pm
      • Maybe our pledge needs to evolve into a statement of professional norms we commit to following and a list of resources we can use in doing so?


        Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 5:58 am
  11. Paula,
    I too do all the positive things you and others describe, not because I agree with standardized tests, but because my students have no choice. They are required to take the test, so I feel it is my job to make them as painless as possible. I feel really guilty about the whole debacle of standardized tests. It is difficult to continue to do something when I am ethically opposed to it. I guess I am just not strong enough to start a one woman stance against testing because my family depends on my income. I wish there was a better way or that I was a better person.

    Posted by Ann | May 23, 2010, 8:22 pm
    • Ann, I don’t think it’s a matter of strength or of being better. I think we all do what we can do for kids and take opportunities like this to problematize our practice and help one another find new ways to take on systems that don’t work for kids. Thanks for all your work on your kids’ behalf and for commenting here. Thanks for your willingness to share your experience and join all the questioning – what’s your take on how the conversation is shaping up?

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 6:01 am
  12. Forget the analogy – Joe’s point is what matters here. I don’t see this story as subversion, I see it as the “compromise” that is referenced in Chad’s post – and it bothers me immensely. Compromise is just another excuse we use when we choose to sit back and allow a travesty – ANY travesty – to occur. You can compare it to genocide, slavery, racism, sexism – whatever you like. The problem is that we are choosing to find ways around confronting the real issue, which is that there is CONSIDERABLE luck involved in these tests Paula. The luck of being born into a wealthy family. The luck of being born into a home that speaks the native language and speaks it well and often. The luck of being born into a home where there is sufficient money and attention paid to stocking it with books. No luck involved? Really?
    I’ll ask this…if the progressive, forward-thinking educators that utilize tools like blogs, Twitter, etc. will not stand up and take a real, meaningful, public stance against standardized testing…then what do we have to look forward to in the future? More compromising? More trickery? Just because we aren’t the ones throwing the logs on to the fire does not mean that we aren’t – in one way or another – still helping to stoke it.

    Posted by davechilders | May 23, 2010, 10:20 pm
    • Dave, the luck you refer to is what the student comes into school with and yes, there is considerable luck involved in that. When kids go into a state test, though, they should have been taught the guaranteed and viable curriculum. THAT is the school’s responsibility and IF that has been done, then there is little luck in taking the test–kids are simply showing what they know, albeit in a low level way.

      There is a difference in teaching to the test and teaching the curriculum in ways that guarantee the student will do well on ANY measure of the state curriculum. If kids are taught the guaranteed and viable curriculum, and ALL kids have had access to this, as Becky says, in a project/problem-based classroom, then I do believe they can succeed on the low-level, multiple choice, machine scored tests.

      That’s NOT compromise, in my mind–I teach the curriculum in ways I believe matter. The tests are a fact I have to live with since I choose to teach in a public school. I just don’t make them my focus or teach with them as the main thing in my mind. I teach with the curriculum in mind and helping ALL students have access to that knowledge and those experiences I provide (or they create) for student learning.

      Posted by Paula White | May 23, 2010, 10:42 pm
      • Paula-
        I think we probably agree on more than we disagree on, but we definitely disagree on the reality of schools being able to completely overcome what a student comes to school with. Part of that is because – the vast majority of the time – the same disadvantages that the student entered with are going to remain constant throughout that child’s education. When I was a VP at a particularly challenged elementary school, I used to have students sit in my office and tell me about watching the police take away a parent the night before – and they are supposed to go to class and focus on subject-verb agreement? Should I have punished that child’s teacher if that student didn’t perform well on the district and/or state standardized test?
        What we do agree on for sure is that every teacher should make the effort to overcome the outside obstacles. I was a realist as a VP, but I also had little to no patience for making excuses. There is at least some degree of choice involved in any person’s job placement, and I would never stand for even a single child being short-changed because a teacher was clinging to the challenges that I have mentioned. But I think we are seeing a disturbing trend of more and more faith being put in “data” and not enough faith and control being afforded to local education entities to do what is best from unique situation to unique situation. And even if we say that standardized testing is not necessarily the monster, it is – at minimum – the heart of that monster.

        Posted by davechilders | May 23, 2010, 10:59 pm
      • Until the tests we administer assume the complexity and comprehensiveness of our assessments as teachers in the classroom I cannot share your confidence about the test’s ability to demonstrate curricular learning. The ones I deal with are to simplistic and I include some fine examples of performance items in the Saskatchewan exams. We test reading, writing and math. The exercise remains singularly inauthentic.

        Posted by Alan Stange | May 23, 2010, 11:40 pm
  13. I think we are just testing or standardizing the wrong thing.
    Content is no longer fixed, so no longer standard.
    Process is fixed… now that we can individualize with personal learning networks via web access.

    In order to validate whether or not our kids are getting an optimal learning experience in an optimal learning space.. we should be standardizing/validating:
    1) access (to web, via tool of choice, during time at school)
    2) process (is teacher in personal learning network)
    3) connectivity (is student creating -via teacher example/facilitation- their personal learning environment)

    Posted by monika | May 23, 2010, 10:26 pm
    • I love your vantage point Monika. All our current standardized testing does is accentuate the unfair advantages that exist in the current system. It’s not that disadvantaged kids can’t learn, it’s that our system unfairly pits them against each other and literally gets in the way of that learning. Overhaul the system – I’m all for that. But I can’t stress the importance of regaining the local control that we have lost in education as we have allowed politicians at all levels to strip it away. It’s only getting worse as each day passes.

      Posted by davechilders | May 23, 2010, 11:13 pm
  14. Hey Dave and Joe,

    I wonder how do teachers like Paula stand up and still keep their jobs. I think it takes more than the teachers to stand up. The students and parents and the community has to stand up against the test. If you know of a good way I would invite you to blog about it here on our site. I think some teacher will need a how to…. it is easy to say Stand up….but what then? I am against testing and will do my best to never give one….but the choice should not be for me to move to private or charter (who have to often have to test also) ….. how do we start this movement and support it with more than just talk…. What are the Must do’s to actually making something happen…. we all know it is not even to just not like them or voice our hate of them….

    since I am going to start teaching in the next year and I would love to have a plan of action….

    Posted by dloitz | May 23, 2010, 10:34 pm
  15. Your point is a fantastic one. That’s why I think so many people – and I include myself, make no mistake about it – have not been aggressive enough in speaking out. We need many supporters, and we need them to represent all of the stakeholder groups that you mentioned – and even more. We need to get the politicians that DON’T agree with it, we need the unions, we need anyone and everyone who is of a like mind to stand WITH them. There is strength and security in numbers. While I certainly prefer Paula’s approach than most others when it comes to standardized testing, what if it became a movement that could no longer be ignored or pacified? These are the things that I wish we were talking more about in our educator peer groups, conferences, and online. There are so, so many talented and dynamic educators out there that know full well the immense problems with standardized testing – I just can’t help but believe that we could parlay that talent and notoriety into a social force that could really affect change. And I wish I had the magic answer for how to make that happen, but I don’t.

    Posted by davechilders | May 23, 2010, 10:50 pm
    • We have a plan…. a disruption beginning fall 2010.
      It involves all you speak of… fashioned by students and a ton of research.
      Anyone can do it.
      You should join us.

      Posted by monika | May 23, 2010, 11:50 pm
    • Thanks for your thinking here, Dave. I think we need something apart from a union here with a single mission an focus on authenticity in schools.

      Has anyone talked with their admin or HR about their options regarding testing? It would be interesting to read about that.


      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 6:07 am
  16. I think we’d be hard pressed to find any educator who values standardized testing above a more authentic real-time assessment format. That being said, for the time being, these tests are our reality. We can feel opposed to it, we can meet with administrators to discuss why they are NOT the best format of assessment, but in the end, if students must take this type of test, then we have a choice: Do we support our students and help them feel confident about these tests, or do we stress them out with our own stress? Paula is doing right by her students–she is working within the system to create the best and most positive outcome for her students. Can she buck the standardized testing system in conversations with adults- ABSOLUTELY! Should she impose that on her students right before high stakes testing? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

    Posted by Corrie | May 24, 2010, 6:17 am
    • Thanks, Corrie!

      I think, at some point, we open up conversation about testing to students. When students are ready to participate in their own educations and make choices about what to learn, they should also have opportunities to think and talk about how to show their learning. They should have the right to question, protest, or participate in their education in ways that let them get the most out of it.

      When we create a space for these conversations, we should not impose stress on students. However, as professionals, we should be able to contribute to students’ and communities’ conversations about testing and share our own viewpoints so long as its clear that students can keep and act on theirs. We shouldn’t hide the problems with standardized testing from kids whose educations and lives depend in some very tangible, financial ways on their results.

      Is this a 3-5 conversation? A 6-8? A 9-12? It probably depends on the kid, the teacher, and the classroom, school, and local communities.

      We should also note that just because we go along with testing in front of kids, that complicity doesn’t keep our stress from being imposed on kids. We have to choose to do that. I think we can have very healthy, low-stress conversations about the tests and their worth with kids, and that, certainly, one way to teach above the tests is to have such conversations.

      My son is a first grader. Last year he drew a picture of a man shooting the word “SOL.” Somebody’s stress got to him last year even though he doesn’t have an SOL until third grade. The tests, as we choose to implement them, are unhealthy.

      The kids get it. We don’t like the tests. What they don’t get is our reasoning. We should neither hide it nor impose it on them. “When?” is a tricky question.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 6:35 am
  17. I think the talk should come when the test comes….if that is 2nd grade than 2nd grade. Kids understand….and will be able to probably more honestly explain to you why they are not useful…There is a great quote in a Jill Ostrow book about children reaction to the test… I will find it and post it….but it went something like this…. spoke by a third grader “The test is kind of stupid they don’t even ask us to show our work….how are they going to know what we are thinking”

    kids can have this conversation…. it just might not be in an adult vocabulary…. it is about approach like Paula says… I don’t think problem is a lack of alternatives to SDT it’s they take more time, effort and most of all Trust!

    What a great conversation this is….Thanks Paula!

    Posted by dloitz | May 24, 2010, 11:06 am
  18. Depending on how much you want to get into it…

    We have about 8 videos within this site..
    once opened, click on the blue tumblr link at the top.
    At the bottom of each video there is link to a document… for those who want to dig deeper.

    We also outlined it per their format on under innovation lab.

    I’m @monk51295 on twitter if anyone wants more. My kids are starting to share out as well.

    Posted by monika | May 24, 2010, 12:05 pm
  19. I like the idea of looking to measure process over content, as a first step. It’s gotten me thinking, however, about measuring in general and back to the notion of “deviance” as perhaps a good thing rather than a bad thing.

    When we measure anything, we have to contain it and define its boundaries. Setting the boundaries does a number of terrible things: (1) It creates something artificial, inauthentic. A multiple-choice question on the Pythagorean theorem is easy to measure, but quite irrelevant to the real-world when it is stripped of its context in this way; (2) It actually, I believe, sets the bar too LOW for what we want for kids and for the world. Performing well on a standardized test does not help improve the world in any significant, meaningful way. Why on earth would we want to set that as the bar?

    I teach an AP class and the AP program is no better. I thought it would be (I’m in my second year of AP), but the exam is so irrelevant to the realities of my subject matter (Computer Science), it is laughable. For the exam, my students take 40 multiple-choice questions and then handwrite 4 free response questions. They don’t even use a computer! (The AP Chinese exam is on the computer!) They don’t write a real program and then don’t do the most important work of computer scientists: identifying a real-world problem and devising a solution to correct it.

    And what I love most about teaching computer science is definitely not allowed. Computer Scientists are big sharers. In fact, the biggest advance in computer languages in the last couple decades–object-oriented programming–is purposefully built around sharing. OO languages have grammar built-in to them specifically designed to enhance collaboration. I think that is so cool.

    And so no allowed on the exam… *sigh*

    Posted by Laura Webber | May 24, 2010, 6:40 pm
    • Laura, you should follow my wife, Bethany Nowviskie (@nowviskie). She’s the #alt-ac director of digital scholarship and research at the University of Virginia Library and its Scholars Lab.

      Around the time we met, she was making and sharing these fantastic objects and rooms in lambda.moo. She’s a great future contact for any of your students with competing passions in computer science and the humanities.

      Thanks for your comment – you’re right to point out that standardized testing asks kids to silo their knowledge, undercutting authentic collaboration.

      All the best,

      Posted by Chad Sansing | May 24, 2010, 7:01 pm
      • Chad,

        Ha! Prior to becoming a computer science teacher/tech integration person I was a…

        …you guessed it…

        English teacher and former PhD student in English at Michigan. She and I will get along just fine! 🙂

        Posted by Laura Webber | May 24, 2010, 7:57 pm
    • Laura, This is such a powerful comment I had to Diigo it. Thank you so much for reflecting in this way.

      Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 27, 2010, 10:38 am
  20. the cool part of standardizing or validating (i don’t think i said measure?..) a process of plns, is that the standard is now individualization.

    the boundaries are – there are no boundaries.

    Posted by monika | May 24, 2010, 6:56 pm
  21. Yee Haw! What a fantastic conversation happening here. Joe, I appreciate you being provocative and sparking new layers of dialogue. I agree that testing as Paula approaches it is no where near the scope of the genocide that occurred in Europe. NO WHERE CLOSE.

    I appreciate the low-pressure, “show ’em what you know” atmosphere that Paula and others here create. Because let’s be honest, portfolios are exactly that–showing some authority figure what you know. There may not be a numerical score assigned to the portfolio (or there might be), but essentially you are still producing a final and finite product that you are judged on, either to be proficient or not in a given area.

    Aaron wrote on his blog, Synthesizing Education, back in February, “Why All Educators Support Standardized Testing (Even if They Don’t Realize it).” If I am referencing the right post, Aaron argued that the problem is that our standardized tests are the wrong tests. Now Joe, Chad, and myself chimed in stating that testing just has to go, but I may now be seeing more value in Aaron’s proposal.

    I am envisioning a radically different education system K-PhD. Our current one is rotten with trouble as we all know, and as Sir Ken Robinson just proposed (and John Holt did many years ago), we just need to start over. An education revolution is needed. I think this system needs to be based on personal curriculum as Robinson said. But at some point there needs to be an exit gate, a place where students become trusted learners and citizens. There needs to be some accepted means of student’s demonstrating that they are master’s of certain basics or concepts. We have talked at length that through authentic relationships with teachers this becomes a known quantity as we are deeply involved in the student’s work.

    So here’s my question, at some point, an authority figure has to acknowledge that a student is a proficient learner and citizen, what does that moment look like? Couldn’t a standardized test, be one option to demonstrate this? It could also be a portfolio…but in the end the point is that an adult “passes” the student. What else could that moment be judged on? What are the basics that need to be demonstrated?

    After the student passes, instead of having an “accredited” college system (where most of the colleges are just as rotten as the public school system) student could move into apprenticeships. This would be more a human-based system, where adult mentorship plays a primary role in human development.

    This is a long comment, I just wanted to get some of these ideas out there. I will elaborate more some other time. I will be very interested to know what others think.

    With hope,

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 27, 2010, 9:19 am
  22. Just Diigoed this too Adam. i hope you write about this more. I feel you are getting to a “vision thing” that would help all of us if you thought out loud about.

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | May 27, 2010, 10:43 am
  23. hey adam…

    at some point, an authority figure has to acknowledge that a student is a proficient learner and citizen…

    why? are we sure of that?

    here’s a voicethread crafted for parents/community to start having some conversations on redefining school..

    Posted by monika | May 27, 2010, 2:12 pm
  24. Monika,

    I think we are after the same thing. First of all, in my comment I was unclearly describing the current paradigm and moving towards a new one. Currently, of course we rely on multiple layers of authority to determine that a student is proficient. One of those figures is standardized testing which represents the knowledge that some corporations and politicians believe students should have. I think we need to fundamentally shift who the authority figure is that determined what this knowledge should be and if a student meets it. I think in your work this authority is placed in the relationship between the student, her PLN, and particularly her expert tutor. But there is a distinctive point prior to this quasi-college stage that I am trying to nail down.

    In your voice thread you say that “by the end of 8th grade all students obtain what we deem foundational content.” That’s it right there. Who is the we? How is the foundational content determined? I don’t think authority figures are a bad thing, it’s just a matter of having the right authority figure. How do we determine what the right authority figure it? Probably by looking to the traits that we want to see in a wise, able planetary citizen, finding someone who truly embodies them and ask them what a 14-year old should know and be able to do.

    How are you going about identifying the authoritative “we” that will decide foundational content? Am I off track? Are we not talking about the same thing?

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 27, 2010, 3:53 pm
  25. personally.. i think the foundational content is completely different than what we are all imagining.

    in rework, by fried, they talk about a study of business people, the findings were something like less than a 1/3 wrote more than 6 pages, and less than a 1/4 ever did more than fractions. they also talk about the skill that would help them determine a tie when interviewing future employees – writing. and a couple paragraphs before, they talk about the thing people have had to unlearn the most – writing.

    i think a key is in the personalization…because i think the foundation – the basic foundation – is learning how to learn. and how we go about learning how to learn – optimally – is different for each person. do we unleash teachers and students enough – to be curious enough – to have a pleasure (flow) in finding things out?

    erica mcwilliams writes of the 21st cent skill for teachers as being usefully ignorant….knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.
    i know i’m way out there – but i think that is the foundational content. if we started with that as our premise in kindergarten… kids would have no trouble with the calculus needed to build bridges… by the time they were building them.

    Posted by monika | May 27, 2010, 4:58 pm
    • Monika,

      I am on board with relevant aims that are mapped onto what is truly needed to be successful in the world, being able to clearly and succinctly express yourself (in writing and speaking) being one of them. I am also right there with you regarding learning how to learn and being usefully ignorant, which are two side of the same coin. That coin is the jackpot for being a lifelong learner.

      I’m interested in Paula’s perspective having been a kindergarten teacher, how would such an approach work in a kindergarten? My experience is that you have to be pretty concrete at that age, so what would exploring how to learn look like? I am not being negative, I just don’t know! Trying out my skills in being usefully ignorant!

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 9:12 am
  26. Adam I think this a great start for a separate post. Could you re-post it as such. I think this is a good direction to steer the conversation….

    but here is my two cents….

    Authority comes from a relationship of the learner and the teacher. Relationship is important. We are social and so is learning. Often this relationship clarifies our learning. the relationship of the more knowledgeable other and the student that should determine that….not age, not time spent in the classroom,not subjects covered.

    Posted by dloitz | May 27, 2010, 5:50 pm
  27. Nice story! Way to keep everyone involved and well-prepared for their tasks.

    Posted by P. Morris | May 28, 2010, 1:06 am
  28. see how silly we’ve become?…

    how would such an approach work in a kindergarten? My experience is that you have to be pretty concrete at that age, so what would exploring how to learn look like?

    those little people in kindergarten are the masters at exploring how to learn. have you seen the study where they put blocks and play dough and ipods and ?… sorry don’t remember it all… out for 3 and 4 year olds.. with no instruction or direction of which thing they should play with. by the end of the day they were all doing things with the ipods. (i’ll try to look that up – because i’m sure i’ve damaged the truth in it.)

    my point… we need to play more. natural curiosity works wonders… we’ve just squelched it. listening to george siemens recently.. he said community is curriculum. we need to be facilitating those networked groups so that natural curiosity and play can thrive.

    i’m wondering.. is the concrete part we all keep looking for… the careful, purposeful selection of those networks… for each kid… ??

    Posted by monika hardy | May 28, 2010, 9:59 am
    • Monika,

      Continue to forgive my ignorance, but my problem is how do you talk about “how to learn” with the little one’s. And I am talking out loud here, perhaps for other’s benefit as well as my own.

      During my student teaching my mentor continually pointed out to me that I use vocabulary that goes right over the kids’ heads. I am not used to talking about learning with little kids, with older kids sure, but not the little ones. I am asking not because I don’t think its natural or doable, but because I don’t know how to have the conversations about meta-cognition with 5 and 6 year olds.

      I love the idea of community as curriculum, that’s a great phrase.

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 10:09 am
  29. It is true Adam we can not “talk” about learning with young ones in our vocabulary….. we need to do the learning with them. They will start to understand….talking does come later…. Vivian Gussin Paley is a good source of this!

    Okay I want this to be it’s own post…


    Posted by dloitz | May 28, 2010, 12:49 pm
    • Okay, folks, I have been AWOL because I tore my rotator cuff, and can’t type left-handed.

      HOWEVER, I can’t stand by and stay out of an early childhood conversation. Young children absolutely can be metacognitive and talk about their learning. In fact, that’s a lesson I begin in K every year–teaching them the word metacognition. More later, but a post from me will be coming on this.

      Posted by Paula White | May 28, 2010, 1:17 pm
      • Paula,

        I am sorry about your rotator cuff. I look forward to your post as I believe it can be done, I just don’t know how! I don’t have kids and haven’t spent much time with the little ones.


        Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 1:33 pm
  30. I have a reason aside from not knowing how to have the conversation with little one’s myself. In my experience it is important to be able to frame and debrief experiences. I have done some reading about, and some observation of, free-play. I get it, I am into “flow” and pleasurable experience, but I have found there has to be some scaffolding that happens around these experiences. We have to find the language along with students to talk about our processes of learning. I am not a supporter of putting some kids in a room with some stuff and just let them do what they do, and that’s it. The fact that the kids learned how to use an iPod in Monika’s example doesn’t surprise me. But so what? While it is one very important dimension of learning, one frequently omitted by modern education-that people can learn things for themselves– it’s not enough for me. “Anarchists” learn how to build bombs by themselves all the time. Ultimately, there has to be a larger value to the learning to float my boat, how does it support peace and democracy? Ecological integrity? Economic justice? Beauty?

    I am not saying that a kindergardener should be able to place their building a fairy house within those concepts, but at some point we have to begin to as learners. Otherwise, we are just continuing (as our current education system does) to learn disconnected facts, which accumulate for no particular reason.

    I am all for student-directed learning, AND I am all for the need to have healthy mentors involved in student learning. One thing that really pisses me off is the unschooling argument that kids teach themselves how to walk, so they don’t need anyone to teach them anything ever in their lives. There is a tension between children knowing what they need and how they learn, AND the need for healthy mentors to provide feedback and boundaries. Because although the 14 month-old learned how to walk largely autonomously, just months before that he needed healthy adults to stop him from crawling off a damn cliff because he didn’t have any depth perception. And the kid will need a healthy adult who yells out “Stop! Come back here!” as the toddler speeds towards a road. Kids don’t always know what is best for them. They do need to be listened to, partnered with, and provided plenty of opportunity to learn on their own. AND the roles of healthy mentors, adults, and elders have to be respected too, and if anything deferred to, because in their wider experience they might just know something that little Johnny doesn’t.

    Alright, thanks to anyone who read that. I’m going for a bike ride to get some groceries now.

    In peace,

    Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 2:10 pm
  31. totally agree Adam… i didn’t mean that figuring out the ipod was the highlight or the ultimate – just an example of the potential when we get out of the way.

    not being involved at all would be just as bad..
    my messy research/collection on expert individual tutors…

    Posted by monika hardy | May 28, 2010, 7:13 pm
    • While certainly messy, it is a solid collection to support and detail the “expert individual tutor” role. This information struck me particularly hard:

      clayton also writes – 80% of the typical teacher’s time is now spent in monolithic acitivity – preparing to teach, actually teaching, and testing an entire class. far less than 20% is available to help students individually….instead of spending most of their time delivering one-size-fits-all lessons year after year, teachers can spend much more of their time traveling from student to student to help individuals with individual problems.

      Thank you for sharing, Monika. This and all our conversations this week have been very enriching. As I said on Twitter you are my new favorite teacher!

      I look forward to your and your students’ guest post!

      Posted by Adam Burk | May 28, 2010, 10:13 pm


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